January 16, 2023

Tales from the attic: My introduction to politics

Sam Smith - When I was a pre-teen, my father was helping to found Americans for Democratic Action. At the national level, he joined such people as Hubert Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and Eugene McCarthy to create what would be, for many years, a loud and controversial voice of cold war liberalism. Although the message was clear enough, the practice sometimes became muddled as when my father and some others agitated to make Dwight Eisenhower the Democratic candidate for president. At the local level, however, ADA was at the center of one of the nation's most remarkable reform movements. Philadelphia had lived for nearly 70 years under Republican rule and the city was known as "corrupt and contented." ADA - which brought under one tent genteel white liberals, union leaders, and Jewish and black activists - proposed to end both the corruption and the contentment about it with a new city charter and new government.

Leon Shull, who would become one of the nation's most productive and long-lived lobbyists for liberal causes, was the director of the Philadelphia chapter and, with my father as chair, I soon was an enthusiastic envelope-stuffer.

I found the liberal cause noble and exciting, but this pre teenager was also fascinated by the different sort of people who hung around political offices. I had met hardly any Jews, blacks or labor union officials in Germantown and Chestnut Hill, they certainly didn't attend St. Martins in the Fields, but most of all I hadn't met many people with the sort of tough-talking enthusiasm one found in politics. These were people totally engaged not only with their campaigns but with life and it was this quality, rather than their ethnicity or even their politics, that truly attracted me - so different as it was from the restrained, diffident manner of Philadelphia  members of a subspecies that has been described as God's frozen people.

That these activists were people to be reckoned with was confirmed when my parents held a fundraiser for Hubert Humphrey. The most impressive moment of that evening came when Joseph Rauh,  civil rights lawyer and liberal leader for decade after decade, actually stood on one my parents' best antique chairs to make his pitch. I looked apprehensively at my mother but she only seemed proud to be there. I stared at Rauh and realized I was looking at the face of real power.

Thirty years later Rauh, then in his 80s, still remembered the evening as well. He recalled that the crowd was quite old and he didn't know how the ebullient Humphrey was going to handle it. What Humphrey did, Rauh told me, was to start talking about what a wonderful president Woodrow Wilson had been. They loved it.

The stars of the Philadelphia ADA were Joseph Sill Clark and Richardson Dilworth. Though both were patrician in name and bearing, in Clark that quality went through to his soul. With Dilworth it stopped with his tailored suits. He was an ex-Marine with a quick temper and a towny accent, who never ducked combat or favored equivocation. In 1951 Clark won as mayor and Dilworth as district attorney

Dilworth's later mayoral race remains a classic. His most notable campaign technique was the street corner rally. Using the city's only Democratic string band as a warm-up act, Dilworth would mount a sound truck and tick off the sins of the Republican administration. On one occasion he parked next to the mayor's home and told his listeners: "Over there across the street is a house of prostitution and a numbers bank. And just a few doors further down this side of the street is the district police station. . . The only reason the GOP district czars permit Bernard Samuel to stay on as mayor is that he lets them do just as they please."

At first the crowds were small. But before long he was attracting hundreds at a shot with four or five appearances a night. One evening some 12,000 people jammed the streets to catch the man who would eventually become mayor.

Dilworth on another occasion got into a fist fight with a member of his audience. His wife once knocked an aggressive heckler off the platform with her handbag and, in a later campaign, his daughter picketed the office of the GOP candidate with a sign reading, "Why won't you debate the issues with my father on TV?"

The Republicans responded with sneers, rumors and allegations about Dilworth's liberalism and, in particular, his association with ADA. The GOP city chairman, William Meade, called ADA communist-infiltrated and `inside pink' where "Philadelphia members of that radical and destructive [Democratic] party have gone underground and joined the Dilworth ranks."

Dilworth's initial reaction was to call Meade a "liar" and to challenge him to a debate. Said Dilworth: "The ADA acted and struck hard against communism while Mr. Meade and his gang created by their corruption the very conditions that breed communism."

But that wasn't enough for Dilworth. To make his point, he marched into the offices of the Republican City Committee and, with press in tow, brushed past the receptionist, and barged into Meade's private office where the chairman was conversing with two city officials. Dilworth challenged Meade to name one Communist in ADA. When Meade demurred, Dilworth said Meade had accused him of treason: "If you want to debate publicly, I'll go before any organization you name. I'll go before your ward leaders. I challenge you to produce evidence of a single Communist or Communist sympathizer in ADA. I say this as one who fought for his country in the Marine Corps. That's more than you did, Mr. Meade."

"Maybe I wasn't physically fit," replied Meade.

Dilworth continued the confrontation a few minutes longer and then stormed out. The red-baiting subsided and the central issue once more became corruption. Dilworth won and as I read the big headlines, I thought it was my victory too.

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